anonymous, school of Matabei
Kan'ei Era (1624-1644)

Okuni Kabuki (Female Kabuki)

six-panel screen: ink, color, gofun and gold leaf on paper

painting: 20 3/4 by 77 1/8 in., 52.8 by 196 cm.
overall: 25 3/8 by 81 1/2 in., 64.6 by 207 cm.

Okuni Kabuki, female kabuki

The small screen depicts a lively scene in the entertainment district of Kyoto against a ground gold leaf. The composition is divided diagonally by a fence running from the upper left to the lower right, separating spectators enjoying a performance from a multitude of figures on a busy street. At the upper right, the open front of a teahouse permits a view of activities of the pleasure quarters. Two trees with pale pink blossoms, one tree top at the lower left, the other reaching beyond the top edge at the center, let us know this is the season of hanami, cherry blossom viewing, the impetus for the festival-like atmosphere.

dancing figure

Our attention is immediately drawn to the beautiful dancing figure on the stage on the far left of the composition. Perhaps unconsciously, the artist has rendered this dancer slightly larger than the other figures on the screen. When compared to a mounted warrior on the far right panel, she is certainly taller than his horse. Clearly the star performer, her robes are meticulously detailed. The upper half of her brocade kosode ('small-sleeved' robe) is decorated with stylized gold clouds on a deep blue ground. The lower half, separated by a bright red obi (waist sash), is decorated with a flower pattern on a slightly iridescent ground of gofun (ground oyster shells). Red flame-like triangles encircle her hem. The robe hugs the contours of her body, her movement suggested by the sway of the elegant hanging sleeves. Turning her upper torso to the right, she demurely tilts her head down towards her shoulder where she holds a folding fan, apparently just lowered, exposing her lovely face. Her hairstyle and accessories indicate that her costume, as flattering as it may be, is intended to be that of a man. Her hair is secured with the forward angled topknot of a young man. In addition, a black lacquer inro (stacked lacquer box used for seals or medicines), strictly a male accoutrement, is suspended at her hip. Her most radical prop, however, is a pair of swords; one thrust in her obi at her left hip, the other boldly balanced across her shoulder. Carrying daisho (katana and wakizashi- the long and shorter sword) was an honor permitted exclusively to the samurai class. As performers were at the bottom of the social hierarchy, it would have been rather impressive for a woman (regarded as even lower) to pull off such a daring display of sartorial defiance.

The single female performer, with her distinctive accessories, indicates this is a depiction of Izumo no Okuni, the celebrated miko (shrine maiden) credited for originating the kabuki theater. History, legend and myth are blurred in accounts of this remarkable individual. The most familiar version identifies Okuni as a miko from the great Shinto shrine, Izumo Taisha, in the Shimane Prefecture. Apparently she began performing to raise funds for the shrine, and brought her show to the banks of the Kamo River bed near the bridge at Gojo in 1603. With a small troupe of musicians and performers, Okuni synthesized a unique performance based on the Nembutsu-odori, a ritual prayer dance invoking Amida Buddha, but presented in a highly suggestive way. She also incorporated songs, skits and furyu-odori (risqué improvised dance in vogue in this era) into the show. These performances were wildly popular, and became known as kabuki odori, derived from the word kabuku, a slang term for eccentric or outlandish behavior (see Jackie Menzies and Edmund Capon, Japan: Masterpieces from the Idemitsu Collection, p.48).

Okuni's shows quickly inspired imitators. The brothel-owners organized their own performances known as onna (female) kabuki on stages located on the Kamo River bed in Kyoto's Shijo district, an unlicensed and unregulated area where a variety of entertainments were available to people of all classes of society. A front for illegal prostitution, onna kabuki was eventually banned in 1629 by the authorities. Wakashu (young man) kabuki took its place for a time, before that too was recognized as a front for male prostitution and thus banned by the authorities in 1652. Henceforward, kabuki was performed exclusively by men.


Within a few years of performing at the riverbed, Okuni was able to establish a small open-air stage in the precincts of the Kitano Shrine in Kyoto (ca. 1607), which is the likely location of this screen. Here, the artist has captured a scene from one of Okuni's most famous skits, Chaya asobi (Teahouse Entertainments). Okuni is in the role of a gallant samurai dancing with his comic sidekick, the manservant Saruwaka (lit. 'young monkey'), usually played by a woman. The two are mocking a teahouse owner or courtesan, sometimes played by a man, cowering beneath a fan at the front of the stage. The gender reversals apparently added to the outrageous performance. The tempo of their dance is set by a group of three percussionists seated toward the back of the stage. Two hold small hand drums, a tsuzumi (with bell shaped body) and a daibyoshi (the 'time-beater'). The third drummer is seated before a kakko, a drum associated with bugaku (courtly dance). To their left, a figure clapping his hands may be a chanter acting as a narrator for the audience. Several figures lining the stage behind the orchestra may be other members of Okuni's troupe, or perhaps honored spectators. The lively gathering includes people of all ages, genders and class. Some are seated upon bright red cloths, while others simply rest on the ground. Several have brought their own food in the stacked lacquer storage boxes opened by their sides. The skit must be very amusing as most of the spectators are keenly watching the performance with their mouths open in laughter and enjoyment.


The attention of the remainder of the audience is somewhat divided, either engaged in conversations or distracted by 'people-watching.' Near the fence a scuffle has broken out between two young men. Meanwhile, bouncers block several people at the restrictively small entrance, called a nezumi kido (mouse wicket) an effective deterrent for gate crashing (see John Carpenter, Momoyama, pp.130-131). On the fringes of the audience an assortment of people are coming and going. A man walking with a woman and carrying a child (holding a pinwheel) on his shoulders is presumably a young family on an outing. It would seem they have encountered a bit of trouble as a woman just ahead of them seems very irritated by an object, perhaps the child's toy, which has gotten caught in her umbrella. To the left, two upper class ladies are seen with an attendant holding an umbrella above their heads. At the bottom of the composition, weary palanquin bearers are sleeping beside their charge.

To right of the entrance, five men are seated on a raised platform enclosed with white cloth curtains decorated with fujimon (wisteria crest). While three of the men, perhaps patrons or sponsors of the troupe, are rather relaxed, the other two are acting as barkers to call people to the performance. One wears a red kerchief on his head, perhaps to dampen the noise of his large drum. The other announcer, holding bamboo clappers, wears a wild red wig, perhaps in the guise of a shojo (a mythological creature with a strong weakness for sake). The fujimon on the curtains is apparently associated with Okuni, her troupe, or early kabuki in general, as it is found in a number of paintings depicting performances. See for example a screen dated to circa 1610 in the collection of the Suntory Art Museum in Tokyo illustrating celebrated places in Kyoto (Christine Guth, Momoyama, cat. no. 30, p. 121).


The remainder of the screen is devoted to the lively activities taking place on the exterior of the performance area. At the lower left corner is an elderly man playing a biwa (stringed instrument similar to a lute). As his eyes are closed, an indication of blindness, it is likely he is a sekkyo bushi (sermon chanter). At the far right, another sekkyo bushi, with his biwa strapped to his back, is brandishing his cane at a small dog harassing him. At the top center of the composition to the right of the enclosure, two more sekkyo bushi are assembled, but here they are playing the shamisen (a banjo-like instrument imported from China by Western traders). The shamisen, an integral part of the orchestra in later kabuki, was just beginning to catch on in the early 17th century. While there were no stringed instruments used in this period of kabuki, the shamisen's increased popularity is recorded here as this screen illustrates a total of six: two with the chanters, one not in use in the teahouse to the right, and three carried by figures in the street.

The music of the shamisen players provides accompaniment for a group of seven lovely fan dancers nearby. The young beauties may be itinerant performers, or associated with a teahouse or brothel. Their graceful movements have captured far more onlookers than the sumo match around the corner. Toward the upper left, several men have paused to watch the dance, concealing their identities behind their sleeves. Presumably these men are samurai, self-conscious that they should not be indulging in the pleasure quarters. Others are not so mindful of their position; throughout the screen several men carrying daisho are boldly enjoying themselves. One elegant dandy near the dancers holds a shamisen languidly across his shoulders. Another to the right, apparently rather inebriated, is being helped along by a beauty.

Okuni Kabuki, female kabuki


In the teahouse at the upper right, people are relaxing, eating, drinking tea, and playing games. Near the dancers a couple plays with small marble-like objects, possibly 'fighting tops' called beigoma. Beside them, a barber shaves a man's head; a satisfied customer sits nearby admiring himself in a mirror. To the right, a folding screen frames an elegant display of robes draped over an iko (clothing rack), an interesting visual allusion to the poetic subject of Tagasode (lit. 'whose sleeves?') depicted on folding screens beginning in the Momoyama period (1573-1615). A beauty practices her calligraphy, beside a couple playing cards. Perhaps in frustration or defeat the woman has left the card game, leaning back and pulling a robe over her head, revealing a few cards poking out from beneath her robe. Her companion seems unperturbed and studies the cards spread out in front of him. The game, called unsun karuta, was thought to have been inspired by the introduction of Portuguese playing cards, um sum cara in the 17th century (see Okada Jo and Emily Sano, Genre Screens from the Suntory Museum of Art, cat. no. 8). Nearby, a woman has snuck up on a friend and covered her eyes. A couple sits eating dango, the traditional rice cakes of cherry-blossom viewing, the woman apparently unconcerned that she is (shockingly) revealing much of her legs. Beyond, two men are nearly coming to blows over suguroku, a board game similar to backgammon.

In front of the teahouse, a pair of sumo matches are simultaneously underway in the middle of the street. Judging from the relatively lean physiques of the men, and the apparent disinterest of most of the people passing, perhaps these are amateurs in an exhibition match. Two men standing on the side appear to be arguing about some matter related to the wrestlers. To the right, a mounted samurai arrives with his standard bearer before him. In the lower right corner, a group of three men with long swords are running away. It is unclear what misdeeds these ruffians may have committed, however, to the left, a group of ladies, their rank indicated by an attendant shading them with a red umbrella, appear rather distraught.


This screen illustrates the intersection where everyday life in early 17th century Japan meets the 'floating world' offering its retreat from the realities of that life. On the left of the composition we see Okuni defying of the restrictive atmosphere of the Tokugawa government; while on the right are leisurely pursuits of the teahouse, with its comforts and courtesans. Between the two arenas walks the everyday person, sometimes tempted by, and sometimes oblivious to these distractions. The artist has depicted every imaginable combination of people: upper class and lower class; samurai and entertainers; women and men; young and old; all crossing paths in a manner that was quite contrary to the well-ordered social structure of the military regime.

The artist's attention to these details reflects the Edo period populace's shifting interest in themselves, and in particular, in enjoying themselves. By the middle of the previous century, artists began to produce screens depicting panoramic views of Kyoto, called rakachu-rakugai (views in the city, views outside the city). As city merchants became increasingly influential, their interest in their metropolis was reflected in these screens. The bird's eye views of the city displayed identifiable temples, castles, and districts separated by stylized gold clouds. On the streets, hundreds of figures representing all levels of society were illustrated. Rakachu-rakugai screens were popular and continued to be produced by machi-eshi (town painters, usually without formal training) even into the 18th century. However, by the early 17th century a new, closer perspective on people was developing. Genre screens depicted amusements such as horse racing, cherry-blossom and autumn maple viewing, and a variety of views of the pleasure quarters. Entertainers, bath-house maidens, tea house waitresses, and courtesans were the fashion plates of the day. Chonin, the merchant class, who enjoyed influence and wealth under the previous regime, were now reduced to the lowest level on the social hierarchy. Some managed to maintain their wealth, and had the means to indulge themselves. Just as an interest in the decorative arts thrived from their sponsorship (as evidenced in the rise of the Rimpa school), fashion, entertainment, and the other trappings of the pleasure quarters flourished under their patronage.

With time, this spotlight on the world of the courtesan in genre screens would become more focused on the figure, without architectural and landscape settings and compositional devices such as stylized gold clouds. The figure becomes the ultimate fashion plate, emphasizing individual women (and men) in beautiful clothing against a plain ground of gold. Facial features become stylized and idealized while clothing and body language become a decorative motif. This gives rise to the bijin, the idealized beauty central to the world of ukiyo-e (lit. floating world) woodblock prints which would emerge in the later part of the 17th century and have enormous impact on Edo period culture.

drunk couple

This screen captures a moment in time- it is not only a snapshot of the daily life of the people of early 17th Kyoto; it also provides an opportunity to consider the production process of genre screens. The artist who painted this Okuni Kabuki screen bears some relationship to the painter of a pair of famous rakachu-rakugai screens, commonly known as the Funaki Bon (in reference to its previous owners), in the collection of the Tokyo National Museum (see Howard Link, Japanese Genre Paintings, fig. 1; and Kyoto National Museum, Miyako no Keisho- Rakachu Rakugai no Sekai, pp. 134-147). Several of the figures found in vignettes from the Funaki Bon screens are nearly identical to figures on this screen. The grouping of the fan dancers, their positions, the drape of their clothing, the spacing between each figure, and even the nearby spectators covering their faces are extraordinarily similar. Elsewhere are lively pairings such as a man grabbing a woman from behind, a woman soliciting a man by pulling at his arm, a dandy samurai holding the wrist of a courtesan, and a beauty playing with a Pekinese dog. A version of each one of these figures (with variations in the patterns on the clothing), and others, are found scattered about on this Okuni Kabuki screen.

As such, it would seem these paintings are the product of the same studio, perhaps executed within a decade of each other. The Funaki Bon has been dated to after 1614 based on certain architectural details, and attributed to the hand of Iwasa Matabei (1578-1650) or an early Matabei school painter (see Tokagawa Art Museum, Early 17th Century Genre Paintings: The World of Lively Entertainments, p. 126, illus. pp. 10-17). Not surprisingly, this Okuni Kabuki screen has also been attributed to Iwasa Matabei (see Elise Grilli, The Art of the Japanese Screen, p. 237). Indeed, the lively composition with bright colors and animated, somewhat heavily joweled figures is characteristic of a style of genre painting associated with the Matabei style of ukiyo-e painting.

Mr. & Mrs. Bumpei Usui, New York
Mr. and Mrs. Leighton Longhi, New York
S. Yabamoto, Tokyo

Elise Grilli, The Art of the Japanese Screen, 1970, p. 237, illustrated plate no. 132 (detail)

Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; IBM Gallery of Science and Art in collaboration with the Japan House Gallery, New York; and the San Francisco Museum of Art, Tokyo: Form and Spirit, 1986.


Okuni Kabuki, female kabuki
Okuni Kabuki, female kabuki

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